By saving gorillas, can Congolese save themselves?

If the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) save the mountain gorilla, might the gorilla return the favour?

That is the hope of environmental activists, who realise that wildlife conservation and tourism could be the key to survival for people as well as animals in a part of Africa where conflict has been the norm.

Mountain gorillas are gentle giants that range across the borders of Uganda, Rwanda and the DRC in Africa. These primates are considered extremely endangered, with fewer than 720 in existence.

After a decade of relative calm for these animals—the same cannot be said of the humans around them—wildlife officials report at least 10 have been killed this year.

Photographs documenting the slaughter are heartbreaking, mostly because of the peaceful, human-like expressions the dead gorillas wear. These pictures are part of a tool kit brought to the United States by Arthur Mugisha, a former game warden in Uganda and now manager of the International Gorilla Conservation Programme.

In an interview, Mugisha acknowledged that the people of DRC can well survive without the mountain gorilla, even though they may not survive the continuing conflict between government forces and rebels in the Virunga National Forest.

But he said the plight of the gorillas is one way to focus attention on the plight of the humans.

“If we were not talking about gorillas ... the story would be very different,” Mugisha said. “It would be another group of people who are suffering and dying, and the world continues.”

Jealousy and violence

No one really knows why mountain gorillas are being killed now, though jealousy may play a role, according to Craig Sholley of the African Wildlife Foundation.

In this area of rich biodiversity, Uganda and Rwanda have been able to capitalise on gorilla tourism, Sholley said, with tourist permits alone accounting for about $15-million in annual revenue. The DRC’s unstable government has been unable to do the same.

“Folks in Congo are taking a look at the successful situation in Rwanda and Uganda, which have revitalised over the last several years, and they’re jealous,” Sholley said. “A degree of jealousy has led to a degree of institutional breakdown that is causing problems in terms of enforcement on the ground.”

Personal animosity may also be a factor, Mugisha said, with gorilla killings becoming a way to settle scores against those charged with protecting the creatures.

What is clear is that fighting between Congolese military and rebels in the park has left gorillas unprotected as park rangers and civilians flee from violence.

“They live hour by hour, not even day by day, because any time they can die,” Mugisha said of the people living in the area. “These are communities that are looking for livelihood, but they are not sure if they will be able to see tomorrow, so it’s a very frustrating and empty life that they are living.”

Standing up to gorillas

The possibility for change may lie in saving the gorillas and their environment, Mugisha said. His programme works to ensure that, through the gunfire, wildlife professionals are still able to go into the gorilla areas to do their jobs.

The programme also encourages such activities as bee-keeping and mushroom cultivation that individual families can do in and around their homes and which can bring in money.

A transboundary strategy to protect mountain gorillas has been supported by the political powers in the DRC, Uganda and Rwanda, he said. It lets wildlife organisations like Mugisha’s take a neutral stance to warfare while trying to preserve gorilla populations.

It also aims to save the forests where the gorillas live, rather than clearing the trees for cropland.

For those whose fields lie just outside the forest, the gorillas can be a nuisance. So Mugisha and others have set up human-gorilla conflict organisations—like neighbourhood watch groups, except instead of keeping the area clear of crime, they aim to keep it clear of crop-raiding mountain gorillas.

“These gorillas are intelligent and they know they are crop-raiding,” Mugisha said. “So when there is an organised group that comes, we can actually chase them without harming them.”

Though they can appear threatening and are certainly large and strong, mountain gorillas are very timid, Sholley said. “If you put a force of 10 people between them and the gardens, the gorillas are in no way, shape or form going to go into the gardens,” he said.—Reuters

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